Here are a few interesting tidbits about arthritis: there are over 100 forms of the disease, even infants can develop it, and in some cases it can be fatal. Evidently, the tendency to dismiss this affliction as little more than “aches and pains” can prove more dangerous than most people realize.
Here, we debunk some common myths and misconceptions about the disease.
Myth 1: It’s not too serious… right?
Wrong. Arthritis is a pain in both the joints, and the pocketbook.
Arthroscope: Revealing the impact of arthritis (a report from the Arthritis Society) says arthritis is one of Canada’s top three chronic conditions, affecting more than 4 million Canadians – a number expected to rise to about 6.3 million people by 2026.
When it comes to cost, the prognosis isn’t much better. The price tag for arthritis-related health care expenses, lost productivity and long-term disability payments (not to mention home modifications and lost wages) stands at more than $4 billion a year. It turns out muscoloskeletal diseases are the second most expensive diseases in Canada – even more costly than cancer.
And guess what – some types of arthritis are fatal. According to Statistics Canada, just over two deaths per 100,000 people each year are caused by arthritis or a related condition. It may not sound like much, but that’s more deaths than are caused by asthma or HIV.
Myth 2: Like grey hair, it’s just part of the aging process.
Stats show that those over 55 are four times more likely to have arthritis than younger people. And, yes, by age 80 more than half of all women and about 40 per cent of men develop the condition.
Still, arthritis isn’t an “old person’s disease”. It can strike at any age – even infancy. In fact, one in 1000 children and teenagers under the age of 16 have been diagnosed with arthritis while an estimated 200,000 Canadians between the ages of 25-40 live with it.
Even worse, studies show that people under 45 are less likely to receive the proper medical attention to manage the condition.
Myth 3: All arthritis is alike.
“Arthritis” is an umbrella term for more than 100 related diseases affecting certain joints, tissues, or even the whole body.
Osteoarthritis, the most common form, causes the deterioration of cartilage often in the hands, feet, knees and hips. Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, however, are autoimmune disorders where the body attacks its own healthy tissues. Related conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome can be caused by the stress of repetitive motion.
Myth 4: It only affects the joints.
As evidenced above, arthritis isn’t a one-trick pony. Anything from muscles to tendons to connective tissue to bones and bursa (the fluid-filled sacs around joints) can fall victim. Systemic conditions like lupus even affect the body’s vital organs.
On top of that, it may even play with your emotions. Arthritis can cause depression, anger, disrupted sleep, fever, unexplained weight loss, weakness and fatigue – not to mention the psychological stress of living with chronic pain.
Myth 5: Arthritis can be cured.
Sadly, barring infectious arthritis (the kind caused by a bacteria, virus or fungus), there isn’t a cure. It is possible for some forms to go into periods of remission where symptoms subside, sometimes for several years, but it doesn’t really go away.
For those who want to try a more natural approach, experts warn that there is no clinically-proven single food, supplement or miracle diet that can cure arthritis. The Arthritis Society, however, does recommend a healthy, balanced diet of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, etc.
Myth 6: Pain pills are the only treatment option.
It’s true that many people with osteoarthritis take acetaminophen, while others try non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to keep inflammation in check.
Still, while meds help, they aren’t the only way to manage symptoms. Physical and occupational therapy can improve mobility, flexibility, and help make everyday activities and hobbies more enjoyable. For some, surgery may be required to remove all or part of an affected joint.
Others find relief in everything from massage to acupuncture to guided imagery techniques and, yes, even the healing power of laughter.
Myth 7: Exercise makes it worse.
Put your sweatband back on – exercise is now recognized as an essential part of a pain management strategy.
Exercise helps maintain strength, balance and range of motion. Besides, extra weight just puts excess strain on the joints. Talk to your doctor about joint-friendly water aerobics or tai chi or other activities that suit your interests and abilities.
You may even find yourself pumping iron (with some professional guidance, of course). Weight-lifting and weight-bearing activities help build strong muscles, which in turn help support and protect joints.
Myth 8: You can’t do anything to prevent it.
There’s a lot we don’t know about arthritis, and we can’t do anything about some of our risk factors (age, sex or heredity). However, healthy lifestyle choices like proper diets, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce the risk. In women, excess weight has been found to increase the risk of arthritis in the hips and hands, and in men it can increase the risk of gout.
Avoid pain and inflammation caused by repetitive motion by taking frequent breaks at work and using proper form — like making sure your desk and computer are ergonomically arranged.
And as for cracking joints — it’s a myth that it will cause arthritis, but it’s a fact that it’s still really annoying to others.
Additional sources: About.com, Lupus Canada, Statistics Canada.